June 12, 2010

Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting

I got my gi all up in a knot when I heard a remake of The Karate Kid was in the works. But of course, I'm a sucker for martial arts films and went to see it anyway. First, some quibbles. Technically, it should have been called Kung Fu Kid because that's the fighting style featured in the movie. And while I thought "Kid" should refer to someone younger than Ralph Macchio in the original (although his boyish good looks helped), Jaden Smith is too youthful. (It's great to have a Hollywood power couple as parents and film producers.) It was disconcerting watching kids get brutalized. I did sympathize with the stranger-in-a-strange-land bit. Watching him get bullied was painful. Not to pick on the budding actor, but maybe Dre Parker was meant to have a lot of adolescent attitude and an arsenal of wisecracks. But that only made him seem less vulnerable. I would have thought this tough Detroit kid could hold his own against some pre-pubescent Chinese hooligans. I do give this young man props for all the rigorous training he did; his hard work showed.

Jackie Chan is Mr. Han, who takes Mr. Parker under his mysterious kung fu master wings after rescuing him from a particularly vicious beating. (In defense of the fight choreographer, the character used his skills to get the kids to essentially beat themselves up instead of Mr. Han actually raising a hand against them.) Jackie gets a chance to show his acting chops as the sad, shuffling, and beaten down maintenance man with a tragic past. (He got in a few one-liners though.) Not quite wise old funny Mr. Miyagi, Mr. Han manages to impart some Shaolin wisdom and discipline in his little ward. Taraji Henson does what she can with what the script requires of her as Dre's worrying mother Sherry. Wenwen Han is Meiying, Dre's school crush. (Can I say it again? These kids are too young to have a love interest!) And just like in the first movie, we have the stereotypical bad guys who take kung fu waayyy too seriously: Zhenwei Wang as Cheng, Dre's self-appointed torturer and leader of thuggish martial artists, and Rongguang Yu as Master Li, who has lost his way as a teacher. He takes "no mercy" to new heights.

One of the reasons I wanted to see it was the China travelogue. (This was a Chinese-American production so cameras were allowed into the Forbidden City for the first time ever since Bertolucci's The Last Emperor.) I loved the Great Wall of China, the heavenly mountain temple and countryside, the Water Cube and Bird's Nest from the Olympics. But other than those iconic images, the Beijing we see in the movie is a much-lived in, unembellished, gritty city.

The tale however, could have moved a little faster. Since the plot didn't exactly tug at my heartstrings, all I really wanted to see was the cliche training montage and the tournament. And that's when the movie finally grabbed me. (Yes, I know it's contradicting my earlier statement that it's disturbing to watch children go all mortal combat on each other. And I have no excuse or explanation. I just wanted my $7.50 worth of karate. Or kung fu.) The fighting scenes are longer, more technical, more violent. The tournament's rousing finish is typical of all sports-themed movies. I even got a little teary-eyed at one of the movie's final scenes. It reminded me of the people of Gondor bowing to the Hobbits in The Return of the King.

Now here's a question I'd like to pose to the screenwriter: What exactly did young Dre learn? True, he stood up for himself, got back up after his opponents knocked him down. Hopefully, he learned that martial arts is about respect, stillness, self-control, balance and discipline. Not that you only earn someone's respect after they have their asses handed to them.

(photo from Filmofilia)


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